Saye Joseph, Staff Writer
Laverne Cox AKA Sophia Burset in “Orange is the New Black,” received an opportunity that many transgender offenders only hope for: the freedom to define their own gender. However, for many trans women, the reality is placement in a men’s prison, rather than in a women’s prison or special housing where they belong.
Many problems arise at the intersection of transgender issues and criminal justice reform, and among the most important is appropriate housing for transgender individuals. Transgender people are particularly vulnerable in encounter with police, jail, and prisons. The mistreatment behind bars, including verbal, physical, and sexual abuse that these women face from guards and prisoners alike has gone ignored for far too long. In September of this year, a trans women named Ashley Diamond filed suit against Georgia corrections officials for “failing to provide her [with] medical treatment and safekeeping.” Ms. Diamond was housed in a male prison for more than three years, where she was mocked and reprimanded for her gender identity. She was sexually assaulted eight times, which led her to attempted suicide. Due to institutional biases, transgender individuals are often placed in high-risk housing, where they are 40 percent more likely to be violently assaulted and receive no help after the abuse. In a nation that incarcerates more of its citizens than any other democratic state, what hope is there for transsexual offenders?
The grim reality of legislative acts is that it does not provide the safety a trans women would receive in a women’s prison or better yet, in special housing. The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) passed in 2003 was meant to address the widespread problem of sexual assault and harassment in the criminal justice system, but many states opted out of the PREA standards. This was an attempt to address the vulnerability of the transgender population in the criminal justice system by providing them a legal remedy. Under PREA, facilities may lose required accreditation and a portion of their federal funding, but this requires a transsexual offender to file and win a lawsuit against the state. Usually the fear of reprisal makes the chances of a lawsuit being filed more than unlikely. Those who are able to muster up the courage to do so run the risk of being placed in “protective custody,” essentially solitary confinement. Many transgender people are placed in solitary confinement for months, and sometimes even years (a reality well captured by “Orange is the New Black” season 3 when Laverne Cox is placed in solitary confinement for her own “protection” due to being physically assaulted by her fellow inmates). Numerous studies have proven that solitary confinement serves no rehabilitative purpose; it does more harm than good. All signs point to the need for transgender individuals to be housed with their appropriate gender or special housing. Unfortunately, those who wield the power to make change have not found meaningful ways to differentiate between sex and gender, and have a long way to go in making institutions safe for transgender offenders.
Saye Joseph is a first year student MPA-PNP Policy Analysis student. Her interests are advocating for underserved communities and seeking criminal justice reform.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article used the term ‘transsexual’ in place of ‘transgender.’ After careful review we have amended the article to reflect the more neutral and current nomenclature.